Coronavirus has hit the British health-care system like a wave, and the worst is still on the way according to many experts. It has sent tens of thousands of patients to the hospital wards, overwhelming an overloaded health-care system which was already showing cracks before the incident. It has also caused thousands of scheduled procedures to be delayed, while others are denied care, writes Colin Stevens.
These are just the immediate effects, however, and the repercussions of the virus are set to ripple through the health-care system for months. It could also have an effect on much more than just health care, and affect British society as a whole. Let’s gauge the wider impact of the coronavirus on the NHS, what we can expect for the future, and some possible solutions.
The labour shortage
Labour shortages have plagued the NHS for years, and the virus is only exacerbating them. Shortages first came to the forefront and the attention of the general public with the junior doctor strikes of 2016. Staff shortages have now been made worse due to the sheer number of healthcare staff who became ill or simply had to go into quarantine.
To address the situation, conservatives were elected with the promise of hiring fifty thousand new nurses at the start of 2020. However, they have failed to deliver at the most critical time. To put things in perspective, nursing vacancies were around 44,000 at the start of 2020, which is equal to 12% of the current nursing workforce, and were still far from the benchmarks set forth by the conservative government.
The immigration debate surrounding the Brexit issue is also affecting British healthcare. Many NHS frontline workers had their visas extended, for instance. It is also unclear how proposals to restrict international migration among low skill workers will impact support staff. More also has to be done to move domestic nurses through the pipelines.
For those wanting to enter the field, it would be wise to start looking at postgraduate nursing courses so you’ll have the credentials needed to qualify for newly funded positions. Uni Compare has a massive database of British universities you can search to find the right one for you. Their database allows you to search by location, study mode, TEF rating or university rating. You could also find institutions that will let you earn the degree part-time, full-time or both.
Failed promises are catching up
Promises of new hospitals usually get a lot of media attention, and are often used as political pet projects by parties. Unfortunately, they are a difficult and expensive endeavour, and that’s why these projects are often shelved. That probably explains why the promise of 40 new hospitals has been pushed back, if we are to believe that they were intended to be a reality in the first place.
There’s also the debate as to whether opening more hospitals would be the best solution. New construction often sucks up resources that could go toward repairing, maintaining, staffing and expanding overcrowded facilities, which is really at the core of the issue. A better approach could be to alter existing facilities so they can meet the constantly changing needs of the public.
The demand for flexibility will extend to individual healthcare providers. We may see more generalist education over specialist education. Furthermore, administrative personnel may be called upon to provide more patient care and support in emergencies.
Growing respect for ICU beds
The number of intensive care unit beds in the United Kingdom has been low by international standards, just as the number of doctors per capita. Yet, demand for ICU beds is growing due to an aging population which resulted in ICU bed occupancy hovering around 80% before the coronavirus hit. This meant there was no room for a sudden influx of additional patients which isn’t a one-time event as we see similar shortages when there is a bad flu season.
Impact on patients
The situation is set to impact patients in many ways. Wait times for elective care will most likely increase, and they might hit the levels seen in the early 1990s for public hospital patients. Many will cope by seeking private care and a large number are taking advantage of video and telephone conferences, but this will not reduce overall demand for healthcare and cannot eliminate the need for all in-person visits.
One possible solution could be to raise pay for nurses, something that will attract students to the profession and keep healthcare professionals in the field longer. Unfortunately, that’s an unpopular proposition, since it will result in higher taxes. Yet, we need more nurses and doctors to provide an adequate level of patient care as data on nursing strikes shows that mortality rates and readmissions go up around 20% if there aren’t enough nurses in the wards.
The coronavirus pandemic presents a clear, short-term crisis for the NHS. More importantly, it is making serious shortcomings clear that must be addressed on a systemic level.